I suppose it’s worth noting that, since starting this review, I’ve had to stop, start, and restart what I wanted to say a good four or five times now.
In a way, that seems as fitting a way as any to start this review up the more I think about it, because honestly, this is one of those movies where I’m still trying to nail down exactly how I feel about it.
Much as I hate to say it, among the myriad terms racing for the spot ‘disappointed’ is one of the front runners.
Cyborg 009 has always been an interesting title as far as the classics of anime and manga go. Despite having been adapted into several series and movies over the years, it’s largely managed to keep to a similar look and feel across the numerous incarnations (for the most part anyway: 008’s character design has managed to get less and less “…well, that’s just uncomfortable” with every new iteration, so there’s that at least.) Even the early 2000s adaptation kept to Ishinomori’s looks and hope for the future.
So when it was announced that Kenji Kamiyama (of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex fame) would be helming an updated movie version with Production I.G., I was curious if cautious. After all this time with the familiar look and themes, doing a heavy duty modernization of the 009 story is an interesting gamble to work with. Both the more realistic character designs and attempts to reconcile the story’s ideology with a post-9/11 setting are risky ideas, but can be very promising done right.
With Kamiyama at the helm, it honestly felt like this should have connected.
There’s a reason I specifically name-dropped his involvement in GitS back there – because honestly, I spent a large chunk of this movie thinking “I could be watching Ghost in the Shell right now.” Which is kind of a problem if I’m in this for 009. As it is, the characters look the parts and have their names and powers, but otherwise this is like a GitS spinoff that got the wrong label stuck on it.
As a sidenote on that characters point, one minor thing that really bugged me: in the movie’s quest for realism, it seems odd that they take the grey-haired Professor Gilmore from the original series and slap another thirty years on him with only a beard to show for that passage of time. I realize it’s not a huge point, but when they explicitly point out it’s been thirty years in the 00 cyborgs were a team, it calls attention to itself.
ANYWAY, the story in question involves a series of terrorist bombings that are spreading across the globe. Targeting numerous towers in many countries, the only shared similarity in the strikes is the claim by the bombers to have heard ‘His Voice’. With this in mind, the 00 cyborgs all reassemble to try and get to the bottom of what His Voice is and what it seeks in the rebirth of the world. A situation made all the more complicated by the fact that 009 has heard His Voice as well.
Confused? You may want to get off the ride now, because that’s the tip of the iceberg.
I’m just going to say it outright here and now – I genuinely have no idea who this story was supposed to be for. Its similarities to Cyborg 009 feel largely superficial, but its story also is one that assumes you’re already familiar with who these people are and what they’ve done before so it can just hit the ground running. It wants to make a deep incisive story full of political conspiracies, false flags, and ruminations on the nature of God, but it also takes regular breaks for big showy action spectacles. It wants us to be involved in the interpersonal drama of these characters, but they haven’t got a lot of growth within the movie itself and are so estranged from their classic selves that there’s no real foothold for us to take hold of.
This last one is particularly a shame, given the characters have always been one of 009‘s strongest points. While the idea of the multinational superteam can be seen as a bit hokey nowadays, Ishinomori did well with keeping them all distinct and likable. This time around, their personalities are largely filed down to the point they largely feel interchangable with the possible exception of Jet/002. But even then, he feels less like the cocky but reliable rival character he was built up as and more a mouthpiece for the movie’s rather hamfisted take on the ‘America: World Police’ mentality. Which is still better than 008, who’s all but written out of the movie entirely.
The movie’s animation is another hit and miss area, albeit in a way I wasn’t expecting. The movie’s action set pieces are, to be perfectly honest, the strongest point of the film. For as many issues as there are with the actual narrative, when this film just stops talking and lets its characters break out their powers, it delivers. One particular highlight of note being a high speed aerial chase involving 009, 002, and a pilot who feels His Voice has commanded him to bomb a foreign country. Besides some great cyborg to cyborg aerial combat, the scene culminates in a sequence of 009 fleeing a bomb blast that, while a little reminiscent of the nightmare scene in Terminator 2, still makes for a visual treat.
Strangely, the area where the animation falters is in those little moments. Like the recent Berserk movie trilogy, this movie was done in 3D CGI done in such a way as to appear more like traditional anime art style. Unlike Berserk, this movie has gotten better at the big gestures in action scenes, flowing smoother and feeling less like game cutscenes, but it still hasn’t quite mastered little gestures. Scenes like an early conversation between 007 and 002 look stiff and awkward when they try to do little motions such as raise a glass.
The score, likewise, is a bit of a mixed bag. I feel a little bad saying this as I’ve enjoyed Kenji Kawai’s work on Patlabor and Gundam 00, but then that’s also part of why this isn’t quite doing it for me. There were several times during this movie where I found myself hearing parts and thinking “was this an unused track from 00 that Kawai decided it was time to dust off?” An early scene involving 009’s memories being reawakened is one of the more prominent examples of this.
On a plus side, as a release, this is a pretty solid job for Funimation’s part. Besides good picture and sound quality, the English dub on this is well put together. I don’t know if I’d say it’s one of the best of the best, but I will give the NYAV dubbing team points for putting together a solid roster without giving a major sense of ‘Hey, I recognize (character from another series)’ in this cast. Plus, they made a nice effort to work in accents for characters like 007 and 004 without them being over the top, so I will always give points for that.
The extras, however, are where Funimation really came through on this one. For as much as the film’s story feels only half done, it has a comprehensive batch of extras to its name. On disc there’s several Japanese promotions, including a very cool short introducing the original 009 characters and how the manga started back in the day, and an early trailer for the movie that, to be perfectly honest, looks a lot more interesting than what we got.
Along with this they include a guidebook that features, among other things, profiles and short articles explaining aspects of the movie as well as an interview with Kamiyama. It’s stuff that’s interesting as supplements, even if it further calls attention to just how much was left out of the film – some of which Kamiyama admits to doing deliberately. One point he makes here is an interesting one in that he admits the movie has points that will be vague to those unfamiliar with the God’s War arc of the manga – which was never released over here. It’s good reading and some interesting food for thought, even if it is so at the cost of the movie.
All in all, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend this. If, after reading this, you still want to look for it, I’d say maybe see if you can rent it (with the guide, naturally). If you’re only casually familiar with 009, or even less than that, you may want to sit this one out. The movie will give you no quarter or any leg up.
I will give Funimation some props for taking the chance on it if nothing else. Picking up a movie that relies so heavily on prior audience knowledge – in this case of a brand that was never that much of a hit over here in the first place – was a huge risk for them to proceed with. Even if this one doesn’t exactly work out for them, I hope it doesn’t discourage them from taking similar chances in the future.
-Some great looking action set pieces shake up an otherwise lumbering movie
-Comprehensive extras by Funimation make up for some of the slack in the main feature
-Movie has a lot to say about a number of ideas, but never really goes anywhere with them
-Just enough familiarity and difference to potentially alienate newcomers and 009 fans alike